Publish or Perish…or at least forfeit your PhD
A couple of days ago I received an email addressed to the graduate student population in my department informing us that there would be a meeting in a couple of weeks to discuss implementing a publication requirement to receive a PhD. The email did not give the specifics, but it seems likely that the requirement will be to have published at least one first author paper in a peer-reviewed journal before graduating.
Let me give you a little more information about my department. It’s called MCB, for Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry. It encompasses approximately 30 research groups primarily focused on primary research using various different model organisms. For example, I work on the process of RNA localization and concurrent translational repression in Xenopus laevis (African clawed frogs). The lab upstairs uses Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies) to study tissue patterning. And downstairs there are three labs using Arabidopsis thaliana (a type of plant related to mustard) to study a variety of genetic and cell biological questions. We also have a fairly large contingent of bioinformaticists and structural biologists. So that should give you some idea of the variety of research contained within our department.
The graduate program is not massive (perhaps 50 students at any one time) but is fairly evenly distributed throughout these diverse labs (after completing a first year core course and three lab rotations). As you can imagine, therefore, each student has a very different lab experience, where different techniques are learned and different data analyzed. They also receive vastly different degrees of advice and mentorship depending on their group leader or P.I. (principle investigator) and the other members of the lab, such as postdocs, technicians, other grad students, and undergraduates.
At the end of our second year, we prepare a written research proposal that is then evaluated in a three-hour oral examination. This comprises the qualifying exam, and once this is passed, a student becomes a PhD candidate. They are deemed ready to undertake research into their chosen field.
I should also point out that we are lucky enough to be guaranteed funding throughout the course of our degree. There is no time limit imposed, although after five years it is expected that you are at least thinking of defending your thesis in the near future.
The thesis itself is usually made up of four or five chapters. The first is a comprehensive review of the literature and state of the field, and in many cases is published as such after the student defends. The remaining chapters summarize the student’s research, and are usually written in a similar format to a published, peer-reviewed article. In fact, if you have published papers, our department is quite happy for you to simply include the paper without re-writing it.
However, until now, there has been no requirement that any of the thesis chapters have to be published in the peer-reviewed literature. They must simply reflect significant insight into the field of study gained through well-controlled and well-executed experiments.
And isn’t that how it should remain?
I think so, but I thought it would be a good idea to increase my sample size, so I put the word out on Twitter. Sure enough my fabulous tweeps took up the debate, and I have storified a select sample here. Roughly the responses can be split into two camps:
Having a publication requirement is a good thing.
A number of programs, it turns out, already have in place a publication requirement. For some it is submission rather than acceptance, which seems a little more reasonable to me. Some see this requirement as a means of judging the value of a student’s thesis work:
Others see publication requirements as a challenging goal to work towards:
Of course publishing papers while in graduate school is incredibly valuable. Not only do you prepare your work in the most polished way possible and deal with the peer review system first hand, you make your transition up the academic ladder far more straightforward. In some fields it is impossible to get a postdoctoral position without a good publication record, and forget trying to get a faculty position without them. By requiring at least one first author paper, then, a graduate program is helping its students.
The major flaw here is that students rarely control the publication process. Step one is selecting a publishable set of experiments from the outset of your thesis. At least in my program, a committee made up of your adviser and three to four other faculty members assesses this in the qualifying exam. They consider whether the experiments are pertinent to the field and can be accomplished within a reasonable time frame. However, as anyone who has ever worked in research knows, an experiment on paper is a completely beast in the lab. Even with an intelligent hypothesis and a good set of hands a scientist can find themselves at the mercy of a dodgy water supply, or a cell line that just won’t grow, or a mutant that does not behaved as advertised in that Cell paper everyone loved. Even if a project doesn’t seem risky to a committee, it can turn risky pretty quickly. Enter the backup project. We all have them. In my case it has turned into my main project, and it has turned out to be just as risky. Awesomesauce.
Regardless of any issues in the lab, once you have a “publishable” set of data, the next step is to convince your P.I. that you should send it out for review. Once you get past that hurdle, you wait with baited breath while an editor at your journal-of-choice decides whether to send it out for review. If it gets reviewed you can virtually guarantee it will come back with comments that require further experiments to be performed. Even if you address all the comments, you are still at the mercy of a second round of review. Then your manuscript will finally see the light of day. If you don’t make it to review, you have to rewrite the paper into the format of your second choice journal and start the process all over again. I have known work sit in rounds of review for close to two years. While the topic of peer-review would in itself make for a very substantial blog post, my point here is merely that a prospective PhD student could end up mired in this mess for a really long time through no fault of their own.
As for the argument that having a published paper helps in the job hunt, there is no question that this is undoubtedly true. However, I know of several very talented scientists who got their postdoctoral positions in various labs at some of the most prestigious universities in the country (even the world) without a single peer-reviewed publication. What they did have were very strong letters of recommendation and presented themselves and their work well at interview. It should also be noted that pursuing an academic career is not the goal of every newly minted PhD, and there are other skills they possess from their training that should be valued equally with a publication record. (I went into this in detail in a previous post, but briefly I am referring to primarily to leadership and communications skills.)
What the anti-publication requirement folks had to say
A major concern voiced during this conversation was that putting the focus on what is “publishable” would keep students from tackling challenging and risky projects:
That negative data is not publishable but nonetheless represents the result of hard work, critical thinking, and good science:
And that there is considerable inequality between P.I.s and committees in terms of what constitutes an acceptable thesis:
“A candidate must submit a project or thesis or dissertation often consisting of a body of original academic research, which is in principle worthy of publication in a peer-refereed context.” (Wikipedia via Dinham and Scott)
Imagine if you were scooped, weeks before submission? If a lab at another institution managed to publish before you? Does that automatically mean that everything you did is no longer worthy of garnering you those three little letters after your name?
The PhD experience is about so much more than publishing a paper (or two, or three…), and while navigating peer-review successfully is an important part of a grad student’s training, all the other aspects of this training should not be overlooked. Participation in conferences, outreach and teaching experience, written and verbal communication, and fruitful internal and external collaboration, are all crucial components of the degree. It would seem to me that while having a cut-and-dry system for figuring out when a student is ready to defend his or her thesis is a great idea, setting a publication requirement is not the way to do it. And if such a system is put in place, the faculty will be the ones responsible, as they are our mentors. They guide the project. They train us. They submit the papers. We are here to learn to become independent researchers and educators, not slaves to the peer-review process.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please, get your comment on!
2.22.12 UPDATE: I spoke to the director of the graduate program last week. After considering graduate students’ comments, the new rule will be that a student have at least one first author, or more than one other author, paper submitted before they defend. This decision is aimed at reducing the number of students that are “forced out” without a publication. I also raised with her the idea of adding value to other aspects of the PhD program, such as outreach, teaching, participation in conferences, and garnering independent funding. She agreed that these are important things to consider, but at this time there is nothing in the works to officially take them into account. She was, however, very receptive to the idea of setting up workshops covering topics relating to non-tenure-track career paths. These workshops would cover things like building an online presence by effectively using social media, networking, and other transferable skills relevant to life outside the academy.
While I am still dubious about the amount of emphasis placed on publication, I am happy that this compromise will not place students at the whim of the third reviewer. And, with an improved attitude towards leaving “traditional” academic career paths, hopefully the graduate program here is on the road to graduating better-prepared, and published, scientists.